Here’s a short story that probably rings a bell: Americans see an avowed enemy in a fringe rebel group in an Asian country. They support the government, trying to root out the rebels and build back the nation. The insurgents sustain long years of humiliating defeat, with some foreign help. The rebels start making a comeback, and the government urges the United States for more support. US officials, however, realise that the government is corrupt to the core. They attempt to save the government, but alas, the government flees at the last moment, deserting their capital.
If you’ve read even an iota of news in the past month, you would no doubt guess that I’m talking about Afghanistan. But I was merely recapping the rise of Communist China in 1949! When American troops beat a hasty retreat from Kabul, observers quickly pointed out the eerie similarity with what happened in Vietnam – a swift takeover after Western troops packed up and left, following years of public protest back home in the United States. But I would argue there’s an even closer cousin to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan – a little further back in time and a bit further north: The rise of communist China and the origin of modern-day Taiwan, the most dangerous place on Earth.
For the first quarter of the twentieth century, China was in civil war – much like Afghanistan before Soviet occupation. Several warlords controlled different parts of the country, but it all changed with the advent of an external invader. Japan attacked Chinese territory in 1931, kicking off the Asian theatre of World War 2 long before the European one. The Chinese were a powerful force, much like the dreaded Afghans. Yet both have been trampled on by imperialist powers for a long time.
The China story
The Afghans turned to their Islamic identity for unification, with help from the West. The Chinese, on the other hand, struggled with multiple ideological options at hand. The old Confucian way of living had fallen out of favour but there were Communists, anarchists, and finally nationalists, represented by the Kuomintang (KMT) party of Chiang Kai Shek.
The KMT was the dominant force that slaughtered Communists for years. Most influential leaders were killed in Shanghai or shortly after that, but a few like Mao Zedong, managed to escape. Thanks to some support from the Soviet-headed Comintern, the escapees endured the Long March and repeated wars. The Taliban similarly was on the verge of annihilation ever since 2001. But a lucky few survived long enough, thanks to alleged support from Pakistan’s ISI, and achieved victory in 2021.
But what led to the fall of the nationalist regime in China despite Western equipment and funds? Well, the same as in Afghanistan: widespread corruption and inability. If you were shocked to hear Joe Biden mince no words for former president Ashraf Ghani, look what Harry S. Truman wrote about his Chinese partners, the KMT: “The Chiangs … (were) all thieves.” American aid fell quickly in both cases, and the other foreign power rose to the opportunity. The Soviets helped the CPC in the gradual ideological export of communism and in cash and kind, and finally in tactical support. They ceded Manchuria (a Chinese territory won back from Japan) not to the KMT but to the CCP. Pakistan exported the youth that makes up the Taliban, and the Pakistan Air Force allegedly bombed Afghan forces.
The most important lesson of this analogy is not in what just occurred in Kabul but in what is about to happen. When the KMT government saw the writing on the wall, they fled. They packed up and left for Taiwan – a tiny island off the coast of China, and set up shop there. The island was well defended by millions of soldiers and often tacit support from the United States, despite being initially abandoned for doom by the US. It remains a problem for China to unify with the mainland.
So, what does this teach us about Afghanistan’s future? For one, the Taliban (in their right minds) would not tolerate a Taiwan. The acting president and the son of the most famous anti-Taliban mujahideen leader of Afghanistan have now sought refuge in Panjshir, a well-defended valley less than a hundred miles north of Kabul. But with everything we know about Taiwan, the Taliban would be foolish to allow another one in their backyard. But if the northern resistance somehow sustains long enough for the tides to turn again in their favour, perhaps Panjshir would become the next most dangerous place in the world?
The author is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, working on Artificial Intelligence. Views are personal.
Thank you to Professor Joshua Goldstein for valuable feedback.